Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Music of Paul Simon

Throughout the middle and later part of the 1960s, and well beyond, a significant and lasting influence on me, and on untold numbers of others I’m sure, were the words and music of Paul Simon who – partnered with Art Garfunkel until 1970 – has been one of the superstars of, well, pretty much my entire adult life.

While Simon would go on to display his genius again and again, the duo of Simon and Garfunkel remains an icon of the mid and late 1960s – and of my youth. During the lonely months in Norfolk, Virginia, “Homeward Bound” would seem directed specifically at me. “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” welcomed me back to Aurora from my time in the Navy. The oddly dichotic album Bookends opened for me the gates to all of Simon and Garfunkel’s (and Tom and Jerry’s) earlier works, and to all that was to follow.

As I blundered through life in the first couple of years of my post Viet Nam incarnation, the words of Paul Simon always offered just the right thing to say. Particularly centering for me at the time was a verse from the song “Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall”.

No matter if you’re born to play the king or pawn

for the line is thinly drawn ‘tween joy and sorrow.

And so my fantasy, becomes reality

and I must be what I must be and face tomorrow.

                                                                               Paul Simon 1966

Antithetical to the implied message of destiny and duty in “Flowers…” was “Cloudy”, which to me, more than any other Paul Simon song, captured the sense of freedom and irresponsibility, and yes uncertainty, that filled the air at the end of the 1960s, and which spoke very directly to the vagabond which has always been a large part of me.

Glen Yarbrough

A folk singer and former member of a San Francisco folk trio known as The Limelighter’s, and also with one popular hit single in his own right, “Baby, The Rain Must Fall”, Glenn Yarborough was also a friend and collaborator of poet and singer/songwriter Rod McKuen.

Earlier that year, I would learn, Yarborough had released a remarkably beautiful album of exclusively Rod McKuen songs titled The Lonely Things. Touring with the conductor/arranger and orchestra from that album, Glenn Yarborough performed to Karen’s delight, and to my amazement and awe.

The performance contained a broader selection of Rod McKuen songs, as well as other folk standards, “ Four Strong Winds”, “Try to Remember”, San Francisco Bay Blues” and the like. But the theme of The Lonely Things and by extension the concert was the recently published book of McKuen poems (and songs) titled Stanyon Street, and Other Sorrows. The title poem, and several others of this collection were soon to become indelibly etched in my memory.

Karen and I would date through that winter and a bit more before drifting apart and each moving on. But the San Francisco-centric works of Rod McKuen and Glenn Yarbrough would remain and have an influence on me, as would, a decade later, the words and music of Jimmy Buffet.

Author’s Note:  Before leaving the stage for a break Glenn mentioned the young comic who had toured with him the previous year, and who had gone on to do quite well – Bill Cosby. And without further ado he introduced this year’s bright young comic, a fellow named George Carlin, who we all enjoyed very much.

Gloria’s Coffee Shop

A couple of blocks from Vern’s house on Lafayette Street was an establishment with the somewhat grandiose name of Gloria’s Coffee Shop. The first floor of this former residence was a sort of tiny store, selling the kind of notions that a small drugstore might carry, but without the drugs. Gloria’s most important feature was however a small lunch counter offering coffee, sodas, ice cream, and a modest variety of light food stuffs; soup, sandwiches, hot dogs, and such.

In the months after I returned home, Gloria’s was a lunch time, and/or after work hangout of Vern, some other neighborhood folk, the mailman who serviced the area, and of course, me. The coffee was good, as was the company. Vern and I would often meet for coffee after work to tease and flirt with the neighborhood girls whom Gloria had hired to work the lunch counter.

I was particularly enamored of one of these girls, Karen, who worked there in the summer and fall of 1967. Karen had graduated from East High a couple of years prior and was just a couple of years younger than I. She was therefore old enough to ask out on a date. And so I did, and in a strange way that date changed my life – but not in a way you might expect.

Asking her advice on what she would like to do on our date, I was told that she would really like to see a singer named Glenn Yarborough, who would be performing at Orchestra Hall downtown (Chicago). I don’t think at that time I had heard of Glenn Yarbrough, but she seemed quite excited at the possibility of seeing him in person. So of course that’s what we did. I purchased two tickets – good ones, in a box above the stage, first row. And so on an early November Friday evening, we dressed up a bit and went into the city to see this fellow sing.

Instructor Training School – Great Lakes

As a member of the naval reserve, I was required to serve two weeks each year of “ACDUTRA”, the Navy acronym for “Active Duty for Training”. For many, depending on rank or rating, this usually meant sitting for two weeks aboard a destroyer escort in Chicago, or a patrol craft in some other Great Lakes port, such as Cleveland. Available billets for these two-week sessions were posted on the Yeoman’s bulletin board and were considered by most to be merely an annual, somewhat burdensome, obligation.

These activities, to me at least, seemed less of burden than an opportunity; which I took advantage of as often as possible. I viewed them as a chance to travel to new locations, and experience new things. The price for this travel, experience, and possible adventure was merely to work each day aboard ship, or in a class, and put up with a few tedious Navy rules.

The first of these opportunities for which I signed up came in September of 1967. Although it offered little in the way of travel, this episode proved not only to be quite interesting but – in the long run – very useful. I applied to, and was accepted for, the September 1967 class in Instructor Training at Great Lakes Naval Training Center.

Returning to Great Lakes was kind of interesting, though the circumstances were considerably different from my last assignment to this facility. I now went as a petty officer, and could forgo train travel in favor of my own car. Plus, the course itself turned out to be just plain fun.

I still remember, and utilize, much of what I learned at that school; the broad techniques, as well as the subtleties of presenting material to a class. There were many, but a few that stand out. Do not turn your back to the class, it’s rude and breaks the continuity of your message. Another, don’t use the word “obviously”. You may, and should, know the material well, but if it was obvious to the class, you would not be there explaining it to them.

There were also a lot of rules regarding decorum. The Navy pretty much insisted that their instructors stand at the lectern and present the material without a lot of extraneous, and distracting, motion (or emotion, it would seem). Noting that many of the best instructors I have known, before and since, seemed not to strictly adhere to this robotic methodology, I have come, over the years, to favor of a more dynamic and free-flowing exchange with my own students. That’s just me, but it seems to have worked pretty well.

I was also coached and taught the absolute necessity of overcoming the natural human fear of speaking before a group. I was as bad as anyone at the start, but I adopted the attitude that if I’m speaking to a group about something of which I know, it’s to their advantage to listen. So, with the help of my ego, I overcame this particular phobia surprisingly quickly.

There was one negative event which I encountered at instructor training school. It turned out that I had performed too well on one of my graded “lessons” – as presented to my class and two of the schools instructors.

Around the time I attended the school, I was fascinated by the functionings of the gas turbine engine, which the Navy then employed in large number, in a variety of ways. So I chose the basic operation of a generic gas turbine engine as the subject of my lesson plan.

Each of our presentations were graded on a very strict set of standards. One of them was the time requirement. Each session was to be forty minutes long; no more, and no less. The simple way to achieve this was to first develop a good lesson plan, one which when presented would fall just short of the time requirement. And to then to rely on your fellow students to ask an appropriate number of questions to fill the remaining few minutes.

Having overcome my discomfort at speaking in front of the group, and knowing my subject well, my presentation went pretty much as planned. I finished in just over thirty-five minutes, and with those last few minutes to go launched into the Q&A session. And the response was – silence. The remaining minutes of the session ticked away very slowly, as my otherwise good performance, was graded a failure.

Frustrated and very angry at my failing mark, I confronted my friends in the class and was told that I had presented the material so well that no one could think of a legitimate question. Pleasing to hear, but maddening in its relationship to my grade. This experience led me to yet another of life’s rules – Do your own work well, and you won’t need to rely on others to bail you out.